How HPV Caused Throat Cancer by Martina Navratilova | Hartford HealthCare

January 11, 2023

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova recently announced that her breast cancer has returned, marking another surprising diagnosis. The 66-year-old discovered an enlarged lymph node in her neck. Doctors diagnosed her with stage 1 throat cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Confused about how a sexually transmitted infection can turn into throat cancer? Christopher Iannuzzi, MD, radiation oncologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, explains.
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How does HPV cause cancer?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It’s transmitted through skin-to-skin contact—usually through oral, vaginal, or anal sex with an infected person. Many people with HPV don’t know they have it because there may be no signs or symptoms. Most infections go away on their own, but some last longer and can cause cancer. “Certain high-risk HPV strains can linger in the body for years — particularly in a cell type known as squamous epithelium, which lines certain surfaces of the body like the throat and genitals,” says Dr. Iannuzzi. “This chronic irritation can cause cellular changes that lead to cancer.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC), HPV can cause the following types of cancer:

  • Cervix, vagina and vulva in women
  • penis in men
  • anus in men and women
  • throat (so-called oropharyngeal cancer) in men and women

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What is the prognosis for HPV-related throat cancer?

Following her announcement, Navratilova said she had started treatment and her prognosis was good. “Unlike cancer caused by smoking, HPV-related throat cancer has a better prognosis,” notes Dr. Iannuzzi. “It responds well to treatment and is very curable.” Symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • sore throat
  • earache
  • difficulties swallowing
  • weight loss
  • Lump or mass in the back of the neck

How can I prevent HPV?

“The HPV vaccine is effective against the HPV strains that cause cancer,” says Dr. Iannuzzi. The CDC recommends giving boys and girls two doses of the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12. The vaccine series is most effective when given before a person is exposed to the virus. Other ways to protect yourself include using condoms and rubber dams during sexual activity.

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